- The Washington Times - Friday, November 26, 2010

THE IDENTITY MAN
By Andrew Klavan
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25
280 pages

In his most recent works of fiction, novelist and screenwriter Andrew Klavan has infused the characters within his complex, well-plotted thrillers with a sense of what it means to be a moral agent: a man or woman who daily faces myriad choices for good or for ill. He explores what it means to follow the path of the better angels of our nature toward healing, community and love, or to follow the tempting, increasingly steepening, downward path toward selfishness, cruelty, violence and death.

Not that there is anything at all pat, contrived or Sunday-schoolish about Mr. Klavan’s novels (such as “True Crime,” “Don’t Say a Word,” and “Empire of Lies”), which remain relentlessly gritty and true to life in their plotting and their characters’ language and internal monologues. There’s nothing here for the prim or the faint of heart, but plenty to spur the reader onward to discover what fresh adventure or fresh horror is about to unfold.

In “The Identity Man,” Mr. Klavan focuses upon a handful of unique characters in an unnamed major city that has recently suffered a catastrophic flood that recently devastated most of the city, followed by a complete breakdown of law and order, with widespread looting and arson.

This was once a proud city filled with charm, hope and vitality. But it is now a rotting ghost of its former self, something straight out of T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land”: an Unreal City from which the nymphs have fled. Amid the noisome desolation, where street gangs roam unmolested and nearly every man’s hand is against his brother’s, the city is haunted by Nemesis. In “The Identity Man,” she stalks a corrupt police lieutenant named Brick Ramsey. As the novel opens, Ramsey has murdered an innocent man, a troublesome whistleblower, and believes nobody knows he did it. He is wrong.

The story of Lt. Ramsey, a man as mercilessly hard and thick as his name, runs parallel to the tale of an improbable hero: a part-time carpenter, talented wood carver and petty thief called John Shannon. A man who seems to drift from one scrape with the law to the next, he has changed his name many times, served time on two occasions, and pinballs from one poor choice to the next. Stupidly agreeing to tackle one last burglary, he experiences a change of heart in midcourse, shows mercy to a woman who falls into the clutches of his brutal partner, and quickly finds himself on the run for his life.

Alone and friendless, facing a long life of running and hiding with no rest, Shannon is shocked to receive a cell-phone text message from a mysterious benefactor who offers to give Shannon a new face, a new name, new documentation and a new life in a new city where he can find all the honest work he can handle. Grasping at this one chance for escape and possible redemption, Shannon meets the unnamed Identity Man, a seedy-looking specimen with an indeterminate foreign accent who brings about the change Shannon desires.

Within a short time, he finds himself transported to modest, comfortable quarters in the Unreal City whose reconstruction is under way - a perfect place for a journeyman carpenter. This man without a past - now known as Henry Conor - finds himself making good money and in good company: He is hired by an elderly man to use his wood-carving skills to replace the damaged head and wing of an angel on a church altarpiece he owns, a treasure salvaged from a burned church. The old man has shored this fragment and others against the modern world’s ruin.

For a time, life is good for Shannon. He has a knack for seeing the glorious possibilities within an ordinary, easily overlooked piece of wood, an insight into redemption he shares with another master craftsman. Shannon even meets a lovely woman who sees something wonderful about him despite his flaws, and he finds himself falling in love.

But nothing comes without a price, and it soon becomes clear that John Shannon was given his new identity for a purpose, and that he is being played by someone, possibly the mysterious Identity Man and his unseen colleagues. And he finds himself stalked by Brick Ramsey, who believes Shannon may have some knowledge of his murderous ways. Once again, as in the days before his identity changed, Shannon faces a truth voiced by one cynical “friend”: “The arc of the moral universe is long, boy, but it bends toward you getting screwed.” But perhaps nothing is preordained, even for Shannon, a man with a target on his chest.

Ironically, Ramsey discovers the same thing as he faces one test after another and chooses the ways of death, at one point siccing a street gang on the woman Shannon loves, seeking to sate his own rage at his miserable life. Even so, he senses time and again that with every such choice he makes he slips ever more surely into “a strange shadow zone outside the zone of his understanding, that strange darkness sheltering nemesis and disaster.”

And indeed, in the end Brick Ramsey discovers that through his own decisions to pile worse deeds upon worse, Nemesis draws ever nearer until she finally lets slip the Furies to have their way with him. And John Shannon - a common burglar and garden-variety ne’er-do-well - discovers that identity is far more about character than it is about a surgically altered face or falsified identity papers.

And to some extent, he discovers a truth about divine mercy in a world that God seems to have fled. It is a truth articulated in another book by a Dutch woman who suffered and died for her acts of self-sacrificing charity in a Nazi concentration camp: “There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”

In “The Identity Man,” moving amid all the foulness and violence of which human depravity is capable, Mr. Klavan explores the mysterious ways of divine grace and the interpenetration of the City of God with the City of Man. It is a work of intense realism pervaded by sorrow, mercy, hope - and ultimately, transcendence.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow” (Cumberland House Books) and a longtime book reviewer.